NFL Ends Referee Lockout After Scabs Falter

For the fourth time in the past two years, a major American sports league’s owners locked out key personnel in an attempt to force major concessions at the bargaining table. The National Football League (NFL) owners locked out members of the National Football League Referees Association (NFLRA or Union) and used scab officials for all four weeks of preseason games, and each of the 48 games during the first three weeks of the NFL’s regular season. After the scab referees came under heavy criticism for repeated errors, the NFL and the NFLRA reached an agreement Wednesday afternoon on a new five-year contract.

The NFLRA had agreed to the economics of the NFL’s proposal regarding wages prior to the lockout, but held firm against the NFL’s efforts to (1) gut retirement benefits—forcing the referees to accept a defined contribution-style retirement plan, (2) the NFL’s attempts to create a group of non-union referees responsible for certain aspects of training, and (3)substantial changes to the way the NFL staffs games. The owners had proposed reducing the amount spent on retirement benefits for referees, and allocating that money to 401(k) plans immediately, while the referees sought to delay that change until at least 2017.

Staffing and training issues were also important to the NFLRA, as the Union sought to protect the jobs of its members and its jurisdiction over related officiating matters. Rather than negotiate in earnest, the NFL maintained its position that the concessions were mandatory, locked out the referees when they refused to accede, and hired scab officials to staff all of the league’s games until the dispute was resolved. The results were immediately disastrous for the NFL, as the scab referees made mistake after mistake throughout the preseason, frequently mis-applying basic rules of the game. When the regular season began and the intensity and scrutiny increased, the scab officials’ performance worsened. Teams were awarded timeouts when none remained, penalties were incorrectly assessed and enforced, and several close games were swung by incorrect interpretation and/or application of the rules.

Tension boiled over after the NFL’s primetime games on Sunday and Monday evenings of week 3 prominently showcased the scab officials’ errors. After the scab referees’ improper interpretation of the rules on the game’s final play awarded a victory to the wrong team, national media attention and fan outrage reached a fever-pitch. Soon after, despite a vocal minority of NFL owners’ continued insistence that the NFL should not move from its demands of the NFLRA, the NFL and the Union reached an agreement that delays the retirement changes until at least 2017, while the NFL will have the right to hire certain full-time referees to handle administrative and training responsibilities. The officials returned to work Thursday evening following Wednesday’s tentative agreement, and ratified the deal early Saturday morning.

In 2011, the National Basketball Association owners locked the players out and lost around 20% of the regular season before finally reaching a new collective bargaining agreement, while NFL owners locked out the players for the spring and summer, leading to abbreviated off-season workouts and a compact pre-season schedule. In September 2012, the National Hockey League owners locked out their players just eight years after the entire 2004-2005 season was lost as a result of a lockout. No major American sports league has lost games to a players’ strike since the 1994-1995 Major League Baseball strike.

By Jordan Mazur

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